Nonprofits Urged to Set Knowledge Goals

Nonprofit leaders want to find and share knowledge across their programs and fields but lack clear and measurable goals for using knowledge to boost performance, lack incentives for individuals or teams to take part in organizational-learning activities, and face uncertainty about the most effective ways to capture and share learning, a new study says.

While 98 percent of 116 nonprofits surveyed by Bridgespan Group collect a lot of information, a third of them reported they were “unable to integrate it in a meaningful way into program activities,” Katie Smith Milway, a Bridgespan partner and co-author of the study, says in a statement.

The study, which looked at how nonprofits learn, and how they translate the knowledge gained into practice, found that organizational learning flourished where nonprofit leaders spelled out clear goals for sharing knowledge, and explicitly championed them; where leaders defined rewards for sharing know-how that were tied to performance reviews and job satisfaction such as receiving recognition or increasing the ability to influence policy; where organizations made clear who was accountable for collecting, sharing and applying knowledge; and where organizations were “thoughtful about matching technology to intuitive, people-centered processes for knowledge collection and sharing.”

Over 90 percent of nonprofit leaders surveyed “care deeply about learning and actively strive to model knowledge capture and sharing within their organizations,” and the majority “appeared to be devoting significant resources to this work.”

The challenge, leaders said, was defining clear goals for organizational learning, creating adequate incentives to invest the time needed to capture and share knowledge, and designing “intuitive” processes that capture and share knowledge.

A third of nonprofit leaders surveyed said their senior managers had not defined clear and compelling learning goals, and nearly six in 10 said they do not track metrics for learning at the organizational level.

“Without clear goals and metrics,” the study says, “it becomes that much harder to effectively deploy knowledge resources, measure progress, and influence behavior across the organization.”

The study also said that, while “creating a culture that motivates each person in an organization to capture and share knowledge actively requires a rewards system beyond the clarity of a compelling goal,” roughly half the nonprofits surveyed do not evaluate or reward some of the “behaviors that support learning.”

Four in 10 nonprofit leaders surveyed, for example, do not incorporate knowledge capture and sharing into how staff members are evaluated.

The first step in finding ways to capture, share and use knowledge to increase a nonprofit’s impact is to make those processes “intuitive,” the study says.

“Identify who needs the knowledge, where the best opportunities lie for learning, and what systems fit best with the way people already work,” it says.

And to ensure that knowledge “flows throughout an organization, informing the quality of service to clients whose lives depend on it,” the study says, nonprofit leaders need to “set learning goals that resonate” because they advance organization’s mission; “reinforce a culture that rewards” the capture and sharing of knowledge; and “engage staff in creating intuitive processes for making it all happen.”

Reprinted with permission of Philanthropy Journal.